IOWA CITY, Iowa – Tornadoes tore across a university campus overnight, ripping walls off a church and sorority house, crushing houses and cars, and killing a woman in a mobile home southeast of town.
University of Iowa sophomore Melissa Fortman huddled with friends in the basement their sorority as the sirens sounded, then decided to run upstairs for her homework just as the tornado hit.
"There was debris flying everywhere inside the house," Fortman told ABC's "Good Morning America" Friday. "I couldn't go down stairs because there was debris and glass flying up the stairs, so I just hid in a telephone booth we have in our house and I just hid there crying."
As talked outside the Alpha Chi Omega house early Friday, entire walls were gone and the interior of several rooms were visible from the street. Two cars had been tossed into a nearby ravine, and glass, debris and tree limbs littered the neighborhood.
"We have a path in the Nichols area that's four to five miles long," said Maj. Dave White of the Muscatine County sheriff's office.
He said the tornado hits farms, knocked a tractor-trailer off a road, then hit the mobile home with a man and woman inside.
"It blew it off the foundation and the trailer rolled and basically disintegrated," White said. He said the man was "banged up" but he refused medical attention. The woman, whose identify was not released, died in the storm.
Gov. Tom Vilsack declared a state of emergency for Johnson, Jones and Muscatine counties.
In Iowa City, 21 people were reported treated at hospitals for storm-related injuries, none believed to be life-threatening.
"We don't have any reports of serious injuries, which is short of miraculous considering what some of the damage appears to be," University of Iowa spokesman Steve Parrot said.
As many as three tornados touched down in Iowa City. Downtown, half the roof of St. Patrick's Catholic Church was torn off. Store windows were shattered, some buildings were partially collapsed and homes and apartments were heavily damaged. Thousands of homes were without power Friday morning.
Parrot said the university opened the Iowa Memorial Union and brought in mattresses for students needing a place to stay and canceled class on Friday.
Ryan Gibney just felt lucky to be alive Friday morning. His distressed call to 911 after a tornado hit an Iowa City shop captured the moments of chaos in the storm's immediate aftermath.
"Please. I'm underneath a wall, the whole building collapsed," Gibney can be heard telling the dispatcher. "I didn't know what happened. I opened the door right before it ripped the ceiling right off the side of the shop. I can't get the door off me, I'm pinned right now. Please help me."
His leg was injured, but he was able to walk and help with the cleanup the next morning.
"I thought that was going to be the end of it for me for sure," Gibney told "Good Morning America."
The storm system knocked down trees and power lines in northwest Illinois communities as well after crossing the Mississippi River around 10 p.m.
In neighborhoods across Iowa City, people pilled up tree limbs, splintered wood, brick and roofing materials as they cleared streets and yards.
In a downtown parking lot, cars sat amid broken glass and metal parts, with one vehicle overturned and others blown several feet from their original parking spots. Police said a roof collapsed at a pedestrian mall. A water line broke and there were concerns about gas lines.
Firefighter Darrall Brick looked on with dismay after the storm as he watched some people walking around downed power lines.
"These students just don't realize how dangerous it is," he said, noting how the crowds have prevented emergency crews from traveling to disaster sites.
The Iowa National Guard deployed 25 soldiers early Friday morning to provide security, keep people away from danger spots and help assess damage, said spokesman Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood.
MidAmerican Energy spokesman Allan Urlis said 1,300 Iowa City customers were without electricity Friday morning. Initially, as many as 6,500 customers were left without power. Repairs were expected to be finished by midday Saturday, Urlis said.